Regardless of whether the UK justice system works or not, no government in their right mind would implement largescale penal reforms that would be seen as liberal or lenient. The general public would be outraged – we’re usually more interested in punishing criminals than rehabilitating them, so it’s safe to say there’s little hope for any drastic changes… Or is it? Naturally, a government should listen to its electorate when it comes to implementing new policies, but are we really as punitive as our initial reactions often imply?

punishment vs rehabilitation

OnePoll polled 1,000 nationally representative UK adults, and found that a surprising 43% thought the death penalty should be brought back to the UK, while only 3 in 10 said it should never be used at all. More than a quarter suggested that capital punishment is an effective way of discouraging criminal activity.

31 of the 52 US states implement the death penalty – do they see low crime levels? No. In fact, in 2013, while the US comprised approximately 4.4% of the world’s population, it held around 22% of the global prison population. They had – and still have – the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. They have a very high reoffending rate of around 60%, despite American prisons being known as harsh environments and offenders often receiving long sentences. These tough measures don’t appear to be putting citizens off committing crimes.

Norway on the other hand has a re-offending rate of around 20%. Here, the focus is primarily on rehabilitation rather than retribution. Prisoners can have access to expensive facilities such as tanning beds and ski-jumps, and the maximum sentence given is 21 years. There’s obviously a multitude of factors at play here, but you have to admit the correlation between severity of justice and likelihood of recidivism is compelling.

We asked our respondents to rank the UK, US and Norway according to how high they expected their re-offending rate to be. Overall, they correctly ranked the US as having the worst re-offending rate and Norway as the best by far. Despite this, many more people viewed Norway’s rehab-focused methods negatively than that of the US (64% vs 31%). They were also more than twice as likely to think positively of tough US-style systems (38% vs. 15%).

This was mirrored by the fact that a significant 47% of respondents felt the key action to take when someone is convicted of a crime was sentencing to punish them.

Some of the suggestions our panel members gave included:
• “Make ‘activity area’s’ [sic] into more cells, these people deserve no home comforts or space or any rights”
• “Prisons are too soft. It’s hardly seen as a punishment these days. Make them hell.”
• “We need something like the old ‘Chaingangs’ [sic] … They are in prison for crimes committed and should not have it easy.”

However, another 40% of people surveyed felt rehabilitation was the most important response, in order to reduce the chances of reoffending.

The majority of respondents also showed support for US President Barack Obama’s recent push for penal reform.

The main three things he called for were:
• Increased job training in prisons – 81% of respondents supported
• Reduction or elimination of mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug crimes – 59% supported
• Reviewing the use of solitary confinement in prisons – 53% supported

Our panel showed almost identical levels of support for the same things being implemented in the UK justice system. So what do people make of the government’s plan to provide statutory rehabilitation on release for all offenders sentenced to less than 12 months in custody, part of their Transforming Rehabilition policy? Over four fifths of respondents (83%) supported this proposition. 54% of them backed this idea as they think it will help reduce reoffending, while 38% agreed because they believe ex-prisoners deserve another chance.

Additionally, 7 out of 10 people we surveyed said the government should incentivise more companies to run schemes like the National Grid offender training and employment programme, which has a reoffending rate of less than 7%.

74% of those polled went as far as to say it would be better to spend tax payers’ money on measures to reduce future crime, than on prison places. And when we told respondents that the average cost of housing one prisoner in the UK for one year in 2013-14 was £36,237 (source), 71% said the government should look at cheaper alternative sentences for minor offenders. 68% thought lawbreakers should often be given community service instead, which is considerably cheaper than prison housing.

A great number of us clearly support propositions of increased funding for rehabilitation programmes, which is at odds with the impulsive, hostile reactions we discussed earlier. It could be argued that we’re simply a nation torn in two halves, but the statistics here speak for themselves; if 47% think punishment of criminals is most important, but 83% support additional government funded rehabilitation programmes, at least 30% of people are advocates for both retribution and rehabilitation.

So with the government promoting rehabilitation as the way forward, are they giving the public what they want?

punishment vs rehabilitation

What about the idea that the punishment should fit the crime? Well, it appears several British laws are stricter than the public feel they should be. For example, despite the government ruling in July that TV licence fee-dodging will remain punishable with a prison sentence, an overwhelming 96% of those polled disagreed with this decision. There have also been some recent cases of people being imprisoned for posting offensive comments on social media, but 87% feel this level of punishment is inappropriate.

Drug policy is a major, complex and increasingly debated issue, but it looks like many people favour liberal reforms over persisting with tough sentences. 68% of people believe the government is losing the ‘war on drugs’, with 48% saying current drug policies are outdated. A mere 9% consider current drug policies to work well. In addition, 55% of respondents think money spent on the war on drugs would be better invested elsewhere, for example, on education or the NHS.

47% of those we surveyed felt at least one class A-C drug is currently classified incorrectly, and 37% think cannabis should either be reclassified or decriminalised completely. One panel member observed that “Some essentially harmless drugs are in the same category as drugs that have severe negative effects.”

Half of the people we surveyed thought taking illegal drugs shouldn’t directly lead to a prison sentence, with 92% of them asserting drugs users should be given treatment for drug addiction and/or community service instead. 70% of those polled think it would be better to spend tax payers’ money on a drug treatment programme for someone with an addiction, than on housing them in prison.

Only 25% said those convicted of taking illegal drugs should be imprisoned because they deserve to be punished. Interestingly, 13% thought drug users should be sent to prison either because it was the best way of discouraging them from taking illicit substances, or because imprisonment prevents people from continuing to use. To the contrary, levels of drug use are very high among inmates, and some people actually take damaging drugs like heroin for the first time in prison (source).

So when asked about ‘criminals’ in general, many of us are primarily concerned with punishments. But when we discuss specific types of offence, such as drug use, we often feel that the maximum sentence is too severe.


Even the Howard League for Penal Reform have said in the past that the biggest challenge for prisons was “the punitive mindset of the public, influencing Government policy,” but perhaps this is beginning to change.

It’s clear that many members of the British public do hold negative attitudes towards offenders in general, and have a desire for retribution. However, if you delve little deeper, many of us are more open to liberal strategies than it initially seems. There is majority support for new rehabilitation strategies, and a significant number of people would even be happy for progressive drug policy reforms to be introduced. Maybe there’s hope for penal reformers, yet.